I Fear I Shall Never Leave This Island: 
Life in a Civil War Prison

David R. Bush
University of Florida Press, 2011, 224 pp., $34.95

Reviewed by Gordon Berg

For archaeologist David Bush, writing about Johnson’s Island is an intimate, deeply personal endeavor.  He has spent more than 20 years meticulously excavating the Union prisoner-of-war camp off the coast of Sandusky, OH and investigating the lives of the captured Confederate officers incarcerated there.  Using the letters written by Captain Wesley Makely of the 18th Virginia Cavalry, and his wife, Kate, Bush forges a detailed record of their day-to-day lives and how their families coped with the uncertainty surrounding the loss of loved ones

Rather than merely annotating these moving letters, Bush puts them in context with a myriad of physical remains unearthed from the 14-acre site over the years.  Almost nothing remains of the original facility but Bush conclusively demonstrates that “inclusion of the archaeological record recovered from the site and the broader historical accounts alongside these letters provides a fuller context in the exploration of the impacts of institutionalization.”   The Civil War was the first time the government sanctioned large-scale confinement of prisoners-of-war, an issue, the author maintains, that “still haunt us today.”

Captain Makely was captured July 8, 1863 near Hancock, MD.  His company was foraging for provisions for its horses while acting as the rear guard for Lee’s army retreating from Gettysburg.  He arrived at Johnson’s Island a week later and remained there for the rest of the war.  During his 19 months of confinement, Makely endured a confinement typical of most of the officers there.

Johnson’s Island was unique.  It opened in April 1862 and was the first Union facility designed specifically to be a prisoner-of-war camp and the only one set up strictly for officers.  More than 10,000 Confederate officers passed through Johnson’s Island during the war; when Captain Makely arrived there were less than 1,000. 

For readers used to reading about the horrors of Andersonville, Camp Douglas, and Elmira, Johnson’s Island might sound like Club Med.  Mail was sent and arrived with remarkable regularity; men could receive food and clothing packages sent from relatives; the captives participated in a thriving industry making rings and other trinkets for themselves and outsiders; and their wardens, men of the 128th Ohio, were relatively humane guardians.

Bush manages to bring both Captain Makely and Johnson’s Island into clear, albeit stark, relief.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (www.cwrtdc.org).  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.